The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

From tangible to electronic

Commentary #3 – In response to Bolter, Chapter 5 The Electronic Book from Writing Space

Much thought continues to go into the shift from the book to the electronic book. That is, an electronic entity that replaces the need for a tangible book. Bolter (2001), in Chapter 5 – The Electronic Book of his book Writing Space, explores the differences, similarities, practicalities and otherwise significant characteristics of both the book and the emerging electronic versions of it. This chapter begs the reader to contemplate the affordances of the electronic book and think critically about how the nature of the book will continue to evolve. Beyond unpacking the implications of the electronic novel, Bolter discusses the electronic book in general and his discussion warrants a further look at the electronic version of textbooks and books used for research purposes. Interestingly, I find it uncomfortable to use the word “book” for the purpose of this commentary when referring to an electronic book. The word “book” itself denotes the sense of containment afforded by a cover, a back and a spine. The open-endedness of technology means that book wouldn’t be the appropriate term, but rather electronic information or electronic resource, would be more appropriate when referring to electronic versions of the tangible book.

There is no question that the book in its tangible form represents a sense of permanency in comparison to its digital counterpart. We are re-envisioning the way we look at print resources and at its technological counterpart and we have now come to have expectations of print as a result off what is available via technology. Bolter notes, “as we refashion the book through digital technology, we are diminishing the sense of closure that belonged to the codex and to print” (2001, p. 79). The very nature of technology requires that information is constantly evolving and there is a sense when visiting sites online that upon a return visit, changes will have been made. Working in special education, we refer to Individual Education Plan’s (IEP’s) as “living documents”, that is, documents that don’t remain fixed but rather change and evolve as necessary. This parallel works well with Bolter’s discussion but warrants the question of how evolving and living information can be appropriately organized. This is where hypertext becomes the defining technological feature that allows the information itself to dictate the nature of organization.  Bolter says “its organization, the principles by which it controls other texts, and the choice of organizing principles depends on both the contemporary construction of knowledge and the contemporary technology of writing” (2001, p.84). The contemporary technology that we are currently using to further the precision by which we organize is hypertext, and that hypertext is creating parallels and links between information in a way that the tangible book simply cannot. A common challenge presented by the tangible book is the ability to collect, in one location, enough sources to properly conduct research.

Whereas pre-technological forms of organization only allowed for a piece of information to be housed in one category, electronic affordances remove the issue of quantity. As a university student, I was often frustrated by the fact that the perfect book to help support my thesis would be on loan, and I would be forced to wait or settle for different, and sometimes seemingly lesser, information.  By storing resources digitally and organizing it appropriately, I would argue that the nature of research would actually improve because of the greater access afforded by electronic information. Bolter’s Chapter 5 leads me to believe that the ideal situation would be to have access to giant online encyclopedia that incorporates links to all related books on a subject (scanned in and searchable through the Google Books Project naturally) and all related sites through the use of hyperlinks. While Wikipedia exists as a popular encyclopedia, the openness it allows in editing articles does not make the Wiki conducive to facilitating electronic books.

Earlier in Writing Space, Bolter argues “in graphic form and function, the newspaper is coming to resemble a computer screen, as the combination of text, images, and icons turns the newspaper into a static snapshot of a World Wide Web page” (2001, p.51). While books may not be able to resemble a computer screen as easily as a newspaper, there is certainly a need for innovation in the presentation of books given the technological culture we now live in. While Kindle and other systems have continued the evolution of how a story is told, there needs to be a system by which informational texts can be made electronic and further improve the nature of how we come to know about a subject. Already, electronic textbooks contain links and virtual activities that have enhanced the learning experience. Bolter lays the framework for analyzing the nature of improvements that moving to the electronic book will afford and it is clear that electronic books will lead to greater access and therefore greater understanding of information now contained outside of the container of a tangible book.


Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.29.09 at 4:07 pm }

An interesting commentary, but what about the peoplewho don’t have access? What wil happen to them?

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